We came through the Gate of the Crossing in a year that is not remembered and will never be forgotten. There were maybe two hundred of us, the seventeen families who have endured even as each individual therefrom has gone and returned a thousand thousand times. Thin as whips, black as the night upon our skins, really starving, we waited a long time on the original shore for such a day as this one was: the incessant winds ceased to blow, the sea lay dead flat calm beneath the ineffable blue of the sky, the islands we longed for almost close enough to touch and the rumoured far coast nearer than it had ever been before or would be again; yet distant as the clouds that massed like future dreams along the horizon. And then we knew we must go; for the ancestors had told us this day would come and what we should do upon it.
Hunger had driven us down into that bare cove where we stripped the shellfish from the rocks, plundered the nests of seabirds on the high crumbling cliffs, dredged from the sands every tough morsel we could eat and pulled out of the waters of the bay with our nets and spears all the fish we could catch; and so it was that we knew we must die or else set out in our frail boats for those islands from which smokes of fires rose and then onwards perhaps to that other land that was sometimes there, sometimes not: like something we had conjured up out of our own heads, a place made of hunger and despair then transformed by those very longings into their opposite, a place of abundance and felicity, a place where our children could grow fat and our old people go garrulous and easeful into the earth.
We were a remnant, an already decimated people caught between two fears, the fear of the brown denuded land behind us, its jagged peaks and howling desolate valleys where the bones of animals and the bones of our own lost ones lay; and the fear before us, fear of the sea, fear of drowning, fear of the grey voracious sharks that slid like ghosts through the blue water. One fear had in it nothing but the certainty of extinction while the other, more awful by far, because it was unknown, was lined with something else that was the opposite of dread, something silvery, something that could or one day would be called hope.
On that day of all days, that remembered unremembered day, the day of the crossing, it was not is if we went down to the sea determined upon a course of action that did not admit of doubt; no, it was otherwise, we were full of trembling, we kept going forth and coming back like a wave that breaks upon a shore and then retreats, a wave of people unable to leave or remain, drawn by hope to the sea and impelled back to shore by fear, again and again, wave upon wave. We knew there was no other way, we knew we must go, even so something held us to the dreary shore of that old dry land : the bones of our ancestors perhaps, or the bones of the children who died as we crossed the mountains to the sea; the bones of those we would leave behind because they were too weak to make the journey or because they were already dead and lived only in us.
Resolution, such as it was, lay behind us, it had been spoken in the night around the fires, one after another the old ones, both the dead and the not-yet-dead, spoke, urging us to remember them and yet go on, telling us again and again what we already knew, there was only one choice for us, one path only, and that path lay upon the sea; but now, at the moment of embarkation, even those who had spoken their consent loudest, who were most eloquent in acclamation, the most convinced, could not make that last breach, could not, it seemed, set forth on the godly sea.
Until one man, the most daring among us, the most reckless or the most desperate, with a cry that was heartfelt, that came from deep inside of him, a cry like the land itself crying through him, a cry of grief as much as fear but more than that a cry of abandonment, of abandonment to desire, left our huddled masses yearning wretched upon the shore and went down to his boat and launched it into the shallows and climbed aboard and arrowed out; then waited offshore, calling to his kin, his woman and his children, exhorting them to join him and cursing them if they would not, saying he would go on alone; until they waded out, the woman with a babe in her arms, a boy and girl, the girl older, waded out and joined him in that vessel made of reeds and sticks; and he turned the prow away from the land and without looking back once began to paddle out into the blue; but the woman did look back, lamenting, and we heard her eerie high keening, mixed with the cries of her older children and the thin mewling of the baby, drift back over the waters and then fade.
So then others among us, emboldened perhaps, perhaps ashamed, also took to our boats and launched them and we went out in a flotilla of black like so many leaves cast on the water, calling to each other, praising each other as heroes and heroines or maligning each other as fools, anything to keep our courage up; while those who were too frail or too sick or too old, and those who could not find it in themselves to exchange hopeless fear for one that had some weird fugitive sliver of hope within it, fell down on the shore we had abandoned and wept bitter tears, as we thought, or tore at their flesh with stones and shells so the blood flowed down into the sands, or beat their fists upon the rocks until they bled also, mixing their doomed blood with the doomed shore upon which they had chosen to remain.
While we who had triumphed over one fear, embraced the other, and the silvery hope concealed therein, and now began to call out to each other in an intoxication of mad bravery, urging ourselves onwards towards those low black islands ahead where, we told each other, there would be springs of water and deer grazing, where fruit or nut trees grew in small lush valleys, where the cliffs would be home to seabirds whose sweet nutritious eggs we would eat, and the bays full of fish we would net or spear or catch in our hands . . . and so we went, telling ourselves things we knew could not be true, saying them over and over so that they might become true; and also so that the probable truth should not prevail: that we were as doomed as those we had left behind, including those who had spoken loudest and longest in favour of the going, who were also those we missed the most. And yet we knew we carried all that was most essential in them onwards with us.
Distance is delusive, it is never sure, and the one that must be covered to reach an unknown destination is the most delusive of all. We thought, if our boats lasted, we would reach the nearest of those black islands in a morning; but the sun rose high above the beaten mirror of the sea, wherein we saw our own starved faces grimacing back at us like skulls, and then began to decline into the west; and still they floated out of reach. Were they closer than they had been before? Or still so far away? Were we mad already, were we already numbered among the predestined dead? Some of our boats, less well made or sailed, fell behind, their crews called out for help but no-one turned back, not even for a moment, that would have meant certain death. And when, as happened many times, one of the lagging craft foundered and we heard the cries of those taken by sharks screeching across the water and then gurgling to silence, we did not look back, we did not even look at each other, we just dug our paddles into the water and urged our boats onwards: for what else could we do?
And then, after another eternity had passed, the man in the lead boat called out to say he could see along the face of the black land ahead an opening, a bay perhaps; and then we understood we were near enough now to know that what we had come for was indeed to be allowed us, that if we stayed strong we would make that land before night fell; but it was not until long red tassels of light from the setting sun lay heaped dishevelled and luxurious across the burnished sea like a woman’s hair let down for sleep, that we came close enough to make out distinct features on the nearest island; and then we saw it was a mirror of the desolate land we had left behind. Bare rocky dry gulfs, valleys of bones, treeless slopes, waterless plains: like something vomited from the gullet of a god of stone, with a stone heart and a mind that thought only upon stones.
We would have howled out our despair, we would have wept, we would perhaps, some of us, have leapt into the sea and given ourselves to the sharks, if it had not been for another cry from one of the lead boats: Look! she said. Look there! Creatures, swimming animals! Our strange fleet was rounding a point into a bay, the shades were falling rapidly, it was hard to see in the gathering gloom; but yes, she was right, there in the water, like seals or dogs, we saw sleek black upraised round heads swimming away from us; some small and some large; and thinking they were animals that we could kill and eat for food, those who still had the energy raised a great shout, we found strength we did not know we had, our small boats leapt forward into the calm waters of the bay, we gave chase in the delirious hope of meat that we could cook around the fires we would kindle on that otherwise barren land.
Nothing could have prepared us for what happened next. It was as the old ones said when they were trying to persuade us to go on without them : you will see things that have never before been seen; you will beggar the mind with feasts the world will bring to your sight. The creatures we pursued swam more swiftly than seemed possible and instead of swimming away to sea, as we expected, they swam towards the shore; and when they reached it, transformed : we saw them in the shady dusk, the ambiguous air of approaching night, grow legs and arms and breasts and bellies and buttocks, we saw the water streaming down the black hair on their heads, the hair on their bodies, under their arms and between their legs, streaming, we saw these brown-skinned women, for that is what they were, gather their children about them and run, fleet as deer, up the sand to disappear into the tumbled rocks above the shoreline.
We saw them and did not understand how we could follow them into the darkness of a land we did not know. So we beached our boats, pulled them up above the wave’s edge, took from them the few things we had left to eat; and upon that unknown shore ate our last food, drank our last water and then, without even trying to build a fire—for where and how would we find the wood?—lay down in our skins lamenting those we left behind, those the sharks had taken, lamenting even, so estranged we were, those of us whom the sharks would take tomorrow.
Some of us slept; others sat up all that moonless night watching and listening: watching the stars blazing and falling, the sea rocking upwards in the bowl of the bay then rocking down again; listening with ears tuned by fear for any human sounds that might come from the bare hills behind the bay, as if the men who must inevitably accompany the women might at any moment be approaching, silently as they would, with their axes and knives, their spears and clubs, ready to fall upon us in the early dawn and take from us all that we had, which was only our lives, but how would they know that? Yet when the first faint light, like a glimmering into view of a shadow that steps from the blackness to greet us—the ghost of a father or a mother, the ghost of an ancestor—appeared on the dome of the sky; when that orange stain, like burnt umber or smeared ochre, grew in the east, no sound came from above, no wild skirling yells rang upon the air, no rain of stones fell; nor could we see, as our anxious eyes scanned the ramparts of the bay, any movement there: even though we knew in our bellies they must be watching us just as we were watching for them; and so it proved.
When daylight came certain individuals, all men, wanted to go up there to look for the strangers, to find out who they were and how they subsisted; these men also thought that they might perhaps capture some of the women and take them away with us, because the losses we had sustained in leaving, and along the way, had left us with fewer women than there were men; and fewer children too, but that could be remedied, these men argued, if we took some of the stranger women. Others advised caution. They said that we did not know the island, did not know what snares there might be, did not even know enough to avoid an ambush if one was set for us. And what about their men? If there were children, as there were, there must be men. It would be far better, these others said, to look for food and water along the shore, to repair our boats, to re-provision them for the journey onwards: since it was clear we could not stay in this land, starveling as it was, inhabited as it already was.
We were disputing thus upon the shore, with our black boats drawn above the tide line, when one of the sharpest-eyed among the children cried out and pointed up to the rocks above us, and we glimpsed there a human form, a brown-skinned, black-haired woman it seemed, clambering back up the hill as if she had been observing us, as if she might even have been listening to us: though how she could understand our speech we did not know. She was like a gazelle, so swiftly did she climb and so soon did she vanish from view; but the sight of her resolved our dispute, at least for those of us who wanted to make contact with the strangers, to find out who they were : with a yell they leapt up the slope after her, ignoring we who felt that this could easily be a ruse that might lead to an ambush. We were wrong about the ambush though right, perhaps, about the ruse: for no sooner had those rough aggressive men of ours reached the place where the woman was last seen than they stopped and gave forth cries of astonishment; and then beckoned for the rest of us to come and see.
It was an offering left upon a flat rock overlooking our landing place: many long strips of dried shark meat laid upon a bed made of a green herb we had not seen before; some kind of round dark fruit that we also did not know, that grew in clusters on a stalk cut away whole from whatever tree it came from. We were so very hungry yet we did not fall upon this food and devour it as we wanted to; because there were so many of us and thus, despite the generosity of the gift, barely enough to go around. Because, too, we were unsure: what did it mean? Was it a trap? We knew about certain poisons that could be disguised in food, did these people also? Why would they give to us, unknown vagrants on that bare shore, something that must be precious to them? And so we disputed over that offering as we had disputed before over whether or not to pursue the stranger women. Indeed, so suspicious we were, in such an extremity of doubt, that some among us even said the food was given so that we would argue with each other, as we were, and in those divisions become vulnerable to attack, which might at any minute come.
And yet while we talked and gesticulated and marched back and forth one of our children, the same far-sighted one who had seen the woman up on the hill in the first place, came forward and plucked one of the round dark fruit and put it in her mouth and ate it, with many sounds of pleasure; took from her mouth the pip and sucked the remains of the flesh from that; and then tucked the seed away inside the pouch she wore at her waist for later; while we watched to see if she would scream and clutch her stomach, if her face would contort and fluids run from her nose and ears and eyes, if she would curl up and die; but she did not. Instead, in a gesture that made her beloved among us and famous in her generation, she picked more pieces of that fruit and one by one offered them to us, each by each; and each by each we ate; and it was like tasting life after the bitterness of death. Some others among our children joined that first girl and broke apart the strips of shark meat and likewise shared it; and also the herb upon which the meat had lain. And the meat was tough but good and the herb pungent yet sustaining and we made sure that everyone was given at least a taste of all three. And all the while, how could we not, we scanned the horizon above us for some sight of the stranger women who had given us this gift.
Again we remembered what the old ones said, both the living and the dead, that we would see things never hithertofore seen: for there on the skyline rose up silhouetted before the cobalt sky the forms of women like spirits rising out of darkness into light. Their arms were raised, we thought they carried weapons, then we saw their hands were empty, their fingers spread wide so that we could see the light behind them; and while we watched they began to move their hands from side to side, to make sinuous movements with their arms, to cause their bodies to sway the way seaweed wafts back and forth in the swell of the waves; and their hair was like long black strands of kelp drifting upon the surface of the sea and their voices began as a low murmuring like the tide coming in upon a quiet shore; then grew louder and more strident though not harsh and we realised they were singing and dancing for us or to us; but we did not know how we should respond. And some of us gripped our weapons and made as if to attack while others looked back towards the shore and the safety of our boats; while others, especially our children, seemed drawn up towards the singing women because they wanted to join them in the dance and the song.
Who can stop children doing what they want to do? Ours were entranced by the singing dancing women and also fascinated by the strangers’ own children who joined the line. Here was another prodigy: as our children climbed up to meet the strangers, theirs began to climb down towards us, so that the two parties merged in with one another and there were cries of joy and some of the stranger women came forward also and bent down to embrace our children as if they were their own. The rest of us felt afraid and began to fall back towards the shore below; those who might have thrown stones or used their weapons could not do so with our own children mingled with those others, for they might have hurt them; and anyway like the rest of us were simply perplexed.
We stood together on the sand towards one end of the cove; the stranger women—there were as many of them as there were of us—followed us down and stopped a little distance away; and the two parties faced one another in trepidation, or fear, perhaps even anticipation. We called to our children to rejoin us and they did so, slowly, as if unsure whether the lure of food was stronger than ties of blood. There was a pause like the drawing in of breath. Sunlight shattered into a thousand pieces on the blue waters of the bay where, as if by pre-ordination, the black back of a solitary sea beast, a dolphin or a whale, breached, blew and was gone. One of the stranger women stepped forward. She carried in her hand a stalk bearing the sweet dark fruit we had tasted, which she held up before us so that all could see what it was. Then she turned and raised her arm and pointed in the direction of the land we had set out for the day before. If it was not a century ago. Again she touched the branch and again pointed to the north; and then we knew she was saying that this was where the trees that the fruit came from grew. A great sigh rose up from amongst us when we heard that that rich land, hithertofore only a dream for us, really existed.